Since we’ve collectively just lived through the most unpredictable year in modern history, it seems rather ambitious to attempt to predict what is to come for the rest of 2021 and 2022. It’s unlikely that any law firm was gearing up for handling a global pandemic at the start of 2020. However, they were already in the midst of change thanks to a shifting legal services market and significant advances in technology. Additionally, with the ongoing rise and fall of practice areas and the ebb and flow of the national and global economy, responding to unexpected changes has always been part of working in the law sector. It just reached an unprecedented set of challenges in 2020. As 2021 has progressed, and Covid-19 continues to disrupt life as we once knew it, law firms have had to continue finding innovative ways to stay nimble and poised to address ongoing challenges as well as opportunities as they arise. For this reason, it’s more vital than ever to examine what trends are expected to influence the legal sector in the coming year and beyond. Here are five trends that are set to shape the legal industry moving forward.
1. Commercial bankruptcy
In response to the pandemic, the waves of restrictions and lockdowns sent shock waves through the US economy and beyond that will likely play a part for years to come. Commercial bankruptcy filings hit a 10-year high in 2020, while at the start of 2021, figures have been trailing similar first quarter figures of previous years. There are certainly solid signs of economic recovery, but with the expiration of stimulus measures and the availability of government relief remaining ever uncertain, the road ahead will still be rocky. through the US economy and beyond that will likely play a part for years to come. Commercial bankruptcy filings hit a 10-year high in 2020, while at the start of 2021, figures have been trailing similar first quarter figures of previous years. There are certainly solid signs of economic recovery, but with the expiration of stimulus measures and the availability of government relief remaining ever uncertain, the road ahead will still be rocky. Bankruptcy lawyers will likely remain busy for the foreseeable future and into early 2022, having become a hot commodity with a high demand for laterals.
In addition to the pandemic, another threat spread across America in 2020. According to the FBI, there was an average of between 3,000 and 4,000 cyberattacks per day in 2020 - an increase of over 400% from previous years. Much of this activity was a direct result of the massive shift towards the pandemic-related remote working necessity. Such a surge in business being conducted via insufficiently secure home WiFi networks posed an irresistible opportunity for hackers. Another concerning trend was that of a rise in ransomware attacks. Typically, ransomware attacks involve hackers gaining system access through a technological vulnerability, encrypting their data, and then making ransom demands (usually requested via Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency) in exchange for the data to be unlocked. The law sector is not immune to this crime, and it’s not only Big Law that is vulnerable. In fact, firms staffed with fewer than 20 lawyers typically account for 50% of all ransomware attacks throughout the legal industry. Even entire court systems have fallen victim to such attacks in the past 12 months. Cybersecurity experts are strongly advising all law firms to focus more on securing their data than ever before. Any law firm that has yet to work cybersecurity into their budget needs to make that move fast, and this will become more commonplace as we move toward and into 2022.
3. Reclassifying freelance workers
It is estimated that as many as 57 million Americans work as freelancers (or ‘gig workers’), with some reports suggesting that they account for as much as 35% of the US economy. While many use freelance work to provide them with a sense of flexibility and freedom, it can also feel like a particularly vulnerable way to earn an income, a fact that has been magnified by the pandemic. There has also been some controversy regarding whether or not some of these freelancers should be entitled to sick leave and other benefits in line with other types of employment. This has all led to a push for the reclassification of freelancers as employees. This could affect everyone from freelance contractors and designers needing health insurance to delivery drivers who often have to pay for their own food delivery auto insurance. Despite President Biden’s campaign promise and the government's intention to review Independent Contractor Rules, the Department of Labor announced its withdrawal of the proposed rule on May 5, 2021. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the Worker Flexibility and Small Business Protection Act is going to be passed as law anytime soon. But it does suggest that the dispute over how to fairly classify workers will continue into 2022, particularly at a state level.
4. Diversity and inclusion
The events of 2020/21 have also brought the importance of inclusion and diversity into focus across all facets of life in America, and the law sector is no exception, with many firms issuing statements denouncing discrimination and racial inequality. The 2020 Inclusion Index Survey Report from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association provided data that backed up this message of mixed diversity stemming from the legal industry. Respondents agreed that corporate legal departments and law firms cultivate positive cultural elements; however, the data show that such organizations are continuing to struggle when it comes to significantly improving their inclusive cultures and leadership diversity. It’s clear that law firms must make sizable changes in this area, and many are doing just that. As of January 2021, 117 law firms have already signed up for the Mansfield Rule Initiative. This initiative provides them with a certification program to support them in establishing protocols for hiring and promotion that increase their diversity in the ranks of leadership.
5. Major shifts in Commercial Real Estate
The mass shift to remote working has led to mass commercial vacancies across the US, and whilst many are returning to their commercial places of work, it isn’t likely that commercial buildings will return to full capacity for some time to come, if at all. As a result, it is likely that these shifts will continue to dominate the commercial real estate space into 2022. Some predict a significant increase in the availability of short-term or flexible leases. Subletting could also rise along with companies’ needs to reserve space for the longer term whilst cutting back on their costs as they ride out the downturns. All of this means that commercial real estate lawyers will be in high demand for some time to come, guiding their clients, both tenants and landlords, to creatively respond to this new dynamic. Law firms themselves are also reassessing their office needs in light of remote working becoming an ongoing trend post-pandemic.
6. Covid-related long-term disability claims
Some of the population that contracted Covid-19 continue to suffer from an array of puzzling symptoms many months after recovering from the infection itself. These ongoing symptoms are making it either difficult or impossible for many individuals to return to their normal daily lives and work. With cases of Covid-19 having reached 34 million and counting, the potential for a tremendous spike in long-term or even permanent total disability claims is likely to develop and continue long into 2022.
Many hoped that 2021 would signal the return to some degree of normalcy. Whilst there have been significant improvements and signs of economic recovery, there are lingering trends born of the past 18 months that will continue to shape the legal landscape for some time to come.
Marc Shuman is a personal injury attorney and the founder of Motorcycle Safety Lawyers and Shuman Legal.